International media sources have reported recently that Royal Moroccan Air Force (RMAF) has acquired the three ‘Harfang’ unmanned aerial systems retired by the French Air Force after several years of service in Afghanistan. Harfang which deployed with the Armee de L’air in 2008 was delivered by EADS (Now Airbus Defense & Space), under the Eagle I cooperative development with Israel Aerospace Industries.
The drone was based on the Israeli IAI/Malat Heron-I system. Morocco and France have long established military cooperation, although in recent years Rabat has aligned closer to the US, procuring a range of new military systems, including F-16C/D Block 52 jet fighters, along with the latest air/air and air/ground weaponry, M-1A1 Main Battle Tanks and, as reported above, the Predator drones.
Morocco is regarded an important stronghold in West Africa, in the effort to push al-Qaeda in the Magreb (AQIM) from its power bases in the Sahara. To combat irregular forces in the Sahara, Morocco has developed a significant reconnaissance and strike force, in which drones are becoming an important part. The agreement to transfer drones to Morocco is therefore a manifest to the level of support the country has among major powers.
In recent months France has deployed two General Atomics Reaper (MQ-9) unmanned aircraft systems which were delivered from systems originally destined for the US Air Force. France required the US drones to support operations in Africa, where it claimed the Harfang was not suitable to support those operations, but Harfang has been operating in Mali since 18 January 2013. In February 2014, Harfang passed the symbolic mark of 10,000 flight hours, which it clocked up in over 900 missions for the FAF, operating with 1/33 Belfort UAV squadron from the Niamey airport in Niger, supporting Operation SERVAL. In June 2014 these drones were tested to operate under control of operators 5,000 km away, communicating via satellite communications. The demonstration preceeded a planned upgrade of the French Harfang are slated under a joing Airbus/IAI contract.
According to media sources, the transfer of the Herons to the Royal Moroccan Air Force was sealed in the spring of 2013. It is still unclear if these were the three Harfang drones that remained in French service which were transferred, or other Heron I drones supplied by Dassault Aviation specifically for that end customer. Both Dassault and EADS had ongoing cooperation with IAI, regarding the marketing of Heron I and Heron TP drones. Press reports indicated the drones were delivered with their EO payloads, datalinks and satellite communications and ground control systems. Some of these systems were provided by French suppliers while others were delivered with the drones from Israel. One of the first sources reporting on the Moroccan Herons was FAR-MAROCCO.
In addition to the three Herons, the RMAF also operates four General Atomics Predator XP drones, believed to have been supplied directly from the USA. According to some sources, Morocco could receive additional drones sustaining the operation of the three systems acquired under the tripartite deal.